ORLANDO, Fla. (November 7, 2016) -- Training for cyber war doesn't mean drill sergeants, marksmanship tests or ruck marches through the mud.

But it does require a virtual environment where the challenges are just as tough -- from hackers and blackouts to insider threats.

The Army moved closer to creating that capability last week by launching a Cyber Innovation Challenge focused on the Persistent Cyber Training Environment, known as PCTE. The PCTE is a virtual training platform designed to enable full spectrum training for cyber mission forces, through automated tools that simulate realistic threats and measure individual and team performance at countering them.

"Currently there are 30 of 41 Army cyber mission teams at full operational capability, with a total of 133 across the Department of Defense that require improved environments to facilitate individual, collective, and mission rehearsal training," said Ron Pontius, deputy commander of Army Cyber Command. "The PCTE is critical to achieving full cyber readiness."

On Nov. 1, the Army held an industry day to outline details of the PCTE concept of operations, with participation from Army Cyber Command, U.S. Cyber Command, the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, & Instrumentation (PEO STRI) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology (ASA(ALT)).

Ultimately a joint Department of Defense capability, the PCTE will close gaps between current virtual cyber training environments in order to support multiple simultaneous training events and increase cyber readiness across the services. It will be scalable to support individual, team and unit training, as well as large-scale exercises, mission rehearsal and the development of tactics, techniques and procedures.

For example, cyber forces training within the PCTE could encounter the latest threat actor methods attempting to compromise service-specific key cyber terrain.

"Our adversaries and the threat are operating on their timeline," said Col. Richard Haggerty, Project Manager for Instrumentation, Targets, Threat Simulators and Special Operations Forces Training Systems. "We can't afford to start from scratch and must leverage existing capability and investment going forward."

The Army-led Cyber Innovation Challenge will support the evolution of the larger PCTE platform by rapidly prototyping new technologies that increase automation and support unclassified training for Cyber Mission Forces.

The Cyber Innovation Challenge works much faster than typical military procurement processes by enabling the rapid prototyping of various technologies and incorporating relevant operational feedback into the formal requirements. The goal for the PCTE challenge is to release a solicitation in December, execute a technical exchange event in March 2017 and issue contract awards to one or more vendors by April.

The Army will release the formal requirement through the Consortium for Command, Control and Communications in Cyberspace (C5), a voluntary umbrella organization that is open to companies, nonprofits and academic organizations. Working through a consortium allows the Army to better reach small businesses and non-traditional companies who are often on the leading edge of cyber technology, but may lack the resources to engage in the traditional federal contracting process.

The consortium approach also incentivizes larger defense contractors to partner with smaller companies and combine their technologies in innovative ways. It facilitates an interactive process that enables the Army to refine the ultimate requirement through hands-on interaction with industry partners. Because the PCTE is a joint system, cyber mission forces from all service components will play a role in evaluating potential solutions.

Like previous Innovation Challenges, the PCTE initiative will buy prototypes using Other Transaction Authority (OTA), a flexible acquisition mechanism that provides cost sharing and speeds the transition of industry capabilities to the government.

"The OTA model is defined by what it is not -- it is not governed by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)," said Kim Blancuzzi, who leads OTA execution at the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center to support the Cyber Innovation Challenge. With OTA, contracts can be obligated and awarded in less than 90 days, she said.

The PCTE challenge is the Army's fifth such effort to date, each tailored to different subset of cyber technology. Since the creation of the Cyber Innovation Challenge last year, the Army has fielded equipment to operational forces, expanded its reach into the tech industry, broadened its understanding of current and emerging capability, and identified prototypes that could transition into existing programs or influence long-term requirements.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2016, prototypes from the first challenge -- which sought advanced deployable hardware and software kits for Cyber Protection Teams providing expeditionary cyber defense -- were delivered to the Cyber Battle lab at Fort Gordon, Ga., where Soldier feedback continues to inform subsequent designs.

This fall, the Army awarded an OTA-based contract for the second challenge, which focused on cyber situational awareness, and an award is expected soon for the third challenge on micro-cloud management. Technical demonstrations by several vendors are now underway for a fourth challenge, which pursues a cyber operations integration platform for mission command.

"The Cyber Innovation Challenge has provided a measurable contribution to holistic Army cyberspace operations, by investigating priority requirements and delivering prototype capability," said Col. Bryan J. Stephens, director, ASA(ALT) Cyber Focal. "It provides an expedited acquisition process as one piece of a more comprehensive strategy, and has proven a valuable mechanism to incorporate innovative technologies and concepts informing future Army cyber programs of record. The Army cyberspace community is still learning and will continue to adapt and improve the process model going forward."